by Michael Tracey
In the spring of 2006 one email caught my attention. Daxis had been demanding that I provide him with contact details for Patsy, an email address and a phone number. I had of cohushurse refused to do this and, in a highly frustrated tone he wrote that he would be sitting in their living room in Charlevoix before he got the information.
How to interpret this? He claimed that he was out of the country, that there was an arrest warrant for him (which we now also know to be true) and that he could never return. What if all that was nonsense, what if he did intend to go to find Patsy, what might he do? Hindsight, to borrow a cliché, is an exact science but then it was less than clear as to what he was implying or threatening. I chose to err on the side of caution and interpret the message as a threat, that he would indeed turn up in Charlevoix.
An Extraordinarily Courageous Decision
I decided in the first instance to share some thoughts and concerns with Lou Smit, and on April 22 wrote an email to him:
“Lou, I’ve been seriously thinking of going to Bryan Morgan and Pat Burke about December -man. I have said nothing to them to date, but there were a couple of comments he made recently that trouble me. Let me explain. In the e-mail of April 17 where he is raising the question of wanting to communicate with Patsy, he says: ‘ I believe I will be sitting in her living room before I get the phone number and e-mail contacts I requested.’ I’ve obviously been stalling on this. When I didn’t reply immediately he repeats the same point in the mail of April 19. When I did reply I picked up on this and reminded him that he has repeatedly said that he couldn’t come back to the US. He replies: ‘ What strange reaction to such a strong statement.’
First point, I had this weird feeling that he was here, Boulder. I then began to think about the way he represents himself and the case. What he has been trying to say is that everything is the opposite of how it appears. The ransom note was indeed not serious, the ‘magician’s trick;’ the murder was not an act of violence, but an act of ‘love’; the asphyxiation was not torture, but a means of creating euphoria; the whole thing was not a sadistic ritual but a ‘dance,’ ‘a symphony.’ And don’t forget that his great hero is Charles Dodgeson aka Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland where everything is topsy-turvy.
His expression of his love for JonBenet is of course total bullshit since – perp or not – he is drawn to the violence of what happened to her, but reconstitutes it in this bizarre romantic form – as with all his little girls. The thing that worries me about the reference to being in the living room is that he is also back to saying how much he loves and adores Patsy, rather in the way he did JonBenet. My worry is that the person he really wants to harm – given the idea that everything is the opposite of what it appears – is Patsy. Hence my thinking that – just in case – they should know about this guy.
Or you could tell me that he really is a total nut-case, and I can end this weird, Kafka-like situation I find myself in.”
I finally decided that it would be prudent to share my concern with Bryan Morgan, John Ramsey’s Boulder based attorney, a man I had come to like and admire but whom I knew to be cautious and not given to panic. I took a copy of the email to Bryan’s house, along with examples of the kinds of things Daxis had been saying about the murder. He read them that afternoon and immediately decided that he had to talk to Mary Lacy, the DA. A meeting was arranged for the following morning, testimony if nothing else to the ability of a very senior criminal defense attorney to get prosecutorial attention.
They met, she read and was horrified. I received a call from Bryan, from her office, asking if I could provide more of the emails, which I did that afternoon. Lacy took them home and spent that evening poring over them and, as she would tell me later, feeling the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.
The decision to begin the investigation was made by her that night, having read the mails. I am convinced that only a woman such as Lacy, who has a reputation for a serious lack of affection for those who commit sex crimes, and here was a sex crime and a homicide, could have launched this investigation. I think to her the risk of being wrong was less important than the possibility that she might be right, and save other children from JonBenet’s appalling fate. It was an extraordinarily courageous decision.
A Brave Woman, a Truly Decent and Dedicated Man, and a Father of Two Daughters
I was asked to go and meet with the DA, and two of her senior colleagues, Bill Nagel and Pete McGuire. Tom Bennett was also present, as was Lou Smit. I understood that this was becoming a very curious position for a media scholar to be in, but in a curious way it felt then, just as it does now, that this was a proper thing to do.
What had happened as the narrative of the emails had unfolded was that I had gone from being a media scholar to someone who was becoming more and more concerned about what I was reading. I was a father of two daughters, I was a member of this community, this society, I was horrified by the possibility that what I was reading may be true and that here was not just a killer but a serial pedophile.
I cannot imagine the moral universe within which one would not try to do something. I would be attacked later. I could care less. I did what I thought, and think, was the right thing to do.
There is, however, something about JonBenet, or rather the tortured universe that surrounds her, that makes the most decent people do bad things. At the meeting in Lacy’s office something happened that was strange and, to be honest, deeply troubling. That morning Smit and I had gone to meet with Mike Sandrock. Lou wanted to meet Michael and get a description of what had happened in Paris. We met in The Trident coffee house, I introduced them and they started to talk. I was there because Michael had requested that, on the reasonable grounds that he wanted someone there other than just a cop.
He gave his description of the meeting at the Shakespeare bookstore near Notre Dame. He described the young American, Lou took some notes and that was it. It all seemed to me necessary, if not especially revealing. That afternoon in Lacy’s office Lou mentioned, in passing, the meeting with Michael.
To everyone’s surprise she started to berate him and in a curious gesture slouched across her desk, her face almost touching its surface, looked at Lou, pointed her finger and said, barely containing her anger, “that (the meeting) was out of order.” Lou did not miss a beat and, himself looking furious, said that he was resigning from the investigation there and then.
It was embarrassing and, whatever the reasoning for the rebuke, unnecessary and deeply unfortunate. Lou Smit is truly decent and dedicated a man, who was working the case for the DA without pay, only receiving expenses, and did not deserve to be treated this way in front of colleagues and, me, a civilian. More importantly it was stupid to lose Smit in this way, since he still knew more about the case, and had thought about it more, than anyone. Here was an important asset which would now not be available. The obvious question was why did she behave in this way? As I sat there and watched this unfortunate scene I was totally perplexed, and remain so. Nevertheless, she was a brave woman.
The emails continued, with ever greater pace, ever greater detail, confession followed by further confession, soaked in a certain self-pity and a belief by Daxis that is was all a misunderstanding: “it wasn’t meant to be the way it was Michael, I loved her, I love all little girls, but JonBenet was the most precious of all…” Here was the perpetual mantra.
Responding to the mails became an almost daily task. There were times when I simply needed to get away from the communication and so I would make up stories, for example that I was going on a camping trip or helping friends to move and so would not have Internet access. The brute reality was that I knew in my heart and head that I was trapped by the logic of the situation, that if this is the killer he cannot be allowed to disappear, he has to be found, and now law enforcement wanted him to be found.
The first effort was to try and trace the emails. The service he used was “Hushmail,” one designed for people who do not want to be found and whose servers are in Vancouver, Canada. International law kicked in and even though Canadian law enforcement were eager to help, and there was a technical way, possibly, to identify the user and the location, all of this required overcoming the bureaucracy that is attendant on all international law ~ formal requests, a court order and so on. It never happened.
There then came a moment when Daxis asked me if I would like to talk to him. I thought about this for oh, I would say, a nanosecond. Yes. He sends me a number, but I wait, I don’t immediately call it. On a late, early summer’s afternoon Bennett phones me and asks if I will go to the Justice Centre and make the call. The reason for making the call from there was that he wanted me to use one of their phones, one that they use so that the receiver of the call cannot trace it or get the number ~ this is mainly used to protect, for example, victims of domestic violence.
I turn up at the JC, Tom is waiting, it’s about 6pm. We know that Daxis is somewhere in the Far East because he’d told me that he would be going “up,” to Malaysia. For a time I thought he was in Australia, but as it turned out he was in Bangkok. I have the number, Tom has hooked up a digital recorder, I hit the keys on the phone. Suddenly a voice is heard, one of those robot sounding voices, “sorry, there are insufficient funds in this account to make this call.” We looked at each other, and expletives flew! Daxis is expecting the call, so what to do? It wouldn’t be wise to use one of the ordinary phones in the JC. I suggest that we go to my office. We call. The conversation is on. This was all getting even weirder.
In the calls my role was to make it clear to Daxis that I was not going to stand in judgment. I just want to understand, I told him, which in truth, to a certain extent, was the case. I was appalled by what I was reading and hearing, but understood that it would have been nonsense to moralize with him. But I also wanted to hear him say what he had been saying in the emails. The calls were of course recorded, as I think he instinctively knew. Slowly he opened up about JonBenet, of his feelings for her, as we edged towards his account of that night.
While these initial conversations had been taking place, Bennett had been working on getting a trace established. The technology of this surprised me, since it depends upon the fact that every phone emits a unique signal and it is this that is employed to do the trace. So I had to use the same phone for each call. Bennett worked mainly with the FBI in Atlanta, but the trace would also include a British intelligence agency, one office in London, one in Manchester, and US intelligence agents in Bangkok.
The idea was simple, keep him talking. We knew that he was using a cell phone that he had specifically bought for our “chats,” that it would be switched off when we weren’t talking and would only be switched on at an agreed time. Daxis was nothing if not controlling. The way the trace would work would be to follow the signal and then triangulate it in relation to cell phone towers, picking up the signal that any cell phone emits when it is live.
The time came to make the call that would begin the trace. Tom Bennett was there, in contact with the FBI in Atlanta. About 5 minutes into the call he handed me a note, “they can’t do the trace.” It turned out later that the CU phone system was one of about 1% of phone systems in the United States which they couldn’t tap into, which may bring glee to those who fear that civil liberties are being increasingly threatened. At the time it was deeply frustrating. I had to carry on talking to Daxis, maintaining the pretence. Tom then handed me another note, “hang up.” I made an excuse, saying that I heard someone coming into the office, needed to hang up but would call later. The FBI had called Tom with a code that had to precede Daxis’ cell phone number. I tapped it in, made the call, and the trace was on.
“I want the last photo taken of JonBenet…”
Over the ensuing weeks there followed hours of conversation, with me all the while pretending everything was fine, no judgment would be made. In a curious kind of way for much of the time everything was fine, the pressure didn’t feel too great, my emotions were in check, I had every confidence in Bennett and the investigation, and I had no doubt that what was being done had to be done.
However, as we moved towards the climactic moment when he would say on the phone what he had been saying in the emails, I began to sense that the experience was taking a toll on me, I was starting to be drained emotionally. Tom clearly saw this and on a number of occasions asked me if I wanted to carry on, that they would not think ill of me if I backed out, that maybe someone else could take over writing the emails, something which Daxis would have spotted in an instant.
I decided to carry on, but came to understood that dealing with someone like this requires that you give something of yourself up, and understand that a person such as Daxis wants to get into your head, play a game, show that he is so much smarter than you could ever hope to be. For a while, there was an element of truth to this, particularly in the sense that despite all efforts, and while they narrowed the area down to a few blocks in Bangkok, they couldn’t exactly pinpoint the location. During one conversation Tom passed me a note saying that those doing the trace were asking if I could hear anything in the background, children playing, traffic, anything that might help. I couldn’t.
Then came what turned out to be an intriguing decision by Tom: he hired Mark Spray. Mark is a remarkable figure. He worked undercover for the DEA, was an experienced cop, a commander in the Boulder bomb squad and he collected sauvignon blanc wines. I met him for the first time on July 29, a Saturday, when he came with Tom Bennett as I was to call Daxis one more time.
It was clear by now that the trace was not working and a certain frustration was setting in. Mark had been reading the emails and noticed that in an email received the previous day Daxis had said “I want the last photo taken of JonBenet…” He knew that I had it and had had asked on a number of occasions that I scan it and send him a copy as an email attachment. I never responded to the request. We had used it in the first documentary and it shows Patsy with JonBenet by her side. It is at once beautiful and heartbreaking since it was taken Christmas morning 1996, JonBenet’s last day alive.
After the call we were discussing how to proceed, how to find Daxis, when Mark suddenly said “he wants a copy of the photo, why don’t you offer him the original.” I looked at him and said, with a smile, you’re crazy, to do that he’d have to give us an address. What, though, was there to lose? And so the next day I emailed Daxis and offered the original photo, adding that Patsy had given it to me personally and that therefore it carried her soul, or something equally strange. He replied immediately, was so grateful and, ever wanting to be in control, insisted that I use UPS, adding that he would set up a mail drop. I must admit, at one level, I was amazed at this development since he had gone to enormous lengths to both hide his whereabouts and his identity. I had, however, also begun to sense that whoever Daxis was, there was a part of him which wanted to be found, needed to come in from the bleak cold of anonymous isolation.
On August 3, Bangkok time, he sent me the address and on August 3, Boulder time, Mark went to a UPS office and put the photo in an oversize envelope so that whoever picked it up could not hide it. The other thing we knew was that he had bought a mountain bike. All that was required now was to set up 24 hour surveillance on the drop. August 6th was JonBenet’s birthday and he had been eager to have the photo by then. On Monday August 7th, which just happened to be my birthday, the surveillance team sees a slight, Caucasian male turn up at the drop riding a mountain bike.
Next: Snake on a Plane